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Wednesday 29 January 2014

The UK has it's own version of the Hunger Games, and here it is.

About 15 years ago, I hit a patch where eating was suddenly a luxury. The thought of doing what I can do today - walk into a supermarket and buy food in quantities to feed myself for a week or more - was so far out of reach it was a pipe-dream.

I was between part-time jobs, and studying full-time. Things were strained with my folks for a variety of reasons, and sheer stubbornness wouldn't let me call them and say I needed help, which they would've done in a minute. (Of course, I would've had to find the money for the phone call. We had no landline, and cell phones were in the realm of yuppie-land, along with fancy holidays and weekly grocery shopping trips.)

On bad days, when I had nothing apart from some instant coffee and sugar to eat, I'd gather the clothes I could part with, head down to the local second-hand shop, and sell them. On very bad days, I also sold off some of my books.
If I was lucky I'd come out with R20 to R40, and head to the store. Toilet paper, canned food - running a fridge costs money - bread, noodles. To this day I have an absolute horror of instant noodles; the sight of those little packets takes me straight back to walking into a shop with my favourite blouse tucked into a packet, and knowing I was about to grovel in the hope of a fair price.

I never got to the stage where I dumpster dived - I'd have broken down and called my folks first - but I knew people who did. They'd wait for the clean-out of the local shop at 7 o'clock. Bread a couple of days past it's sell-by date, cold meats that had expired, as long as they weren't green. If they were hungry enough, they took a chance on the green meat. They didn't have people they could go to and tell about the yawning pit in the base of their bellies; when eating is a luxury, you are always hungry. It's like a rat, sitting in the corner of your brain and chewing quietly at everything.

Fast forward a couple of years. I was in my final year at college, sharing a house with my boyfriend and a flat-mate. We all had  steady part-time incomes, enough that we hired a cleaning lady to come in once a week. We had graduated to weekly shopping trips. We weren't rolling in caviar, but we weren't eating instant noodles, either.
The second week the cleaning lady came, I went home early from college, and found her scraping food scraps out of our garbage and eating it. It turned out she'd walked into town because she couldn't afford the bus fare, and she was looking after her grandkids and a mentally disabled son. She hadn't eaten in three days; the money she got went on food for them, and she was scared to take any of the food in the kitchen and lose her job.
She went home with a food parcel that day, and we made sure that we had bread or left-overs from the night before for her from then on. We weren't rich, but we weren't starving, and cursed if we'd let anyone under our roof leave hungry after cleaning our mess up. And I still remembered the rat, that little frantic chewing of hope and dignity.

When I moved to London twelve years ago, one of the things that struck me was the infrastructure that appeared to be in place to help people out. People struggling to live could get housing, could get a small allowance. Students were given an allowance to study. There were no street kids. There were very few homeless sleeping in doorways, compared to South African cities. They were still there, but when you've grown used to three-year olds begging for food and money with that rat already settled in behind their eyes, the impact is lessened. It shouldn't be, but it is. Humans have a strange capacity for accepting the unacceptable, for tolerating circumstances that should make them blanch and say enough. 

Since then, the tabloids and the wealthy darlings currently running the country have made ordinary people ashamed to claim benefits, often times benefits they desperately need, and paid for during their working lives. (I'm aware of the scroungers. I'm also aware that they're a pretty small percentage of the people claiming.) The shelters and housing have been slashed. The student allowance, often something poorer kids needed to pay for their transport and gear for college has been eliminated. Rentals have tripled in London, and the odds of me ever affording a mortgage for a property in the UK? I have a better shot at winning the lottery. Food prices have soared; it is cheaper to eat the burgers they sell for £1.99 than to buy a loaf of bread and a slab of cheese. (Tesco brand bread : 0.45p. Cheddar cheese: £2.49).
The current arrangement if you're out of work seems expressly designed to make it impossible to keep your dignity and meet all the requirements to sign on for job-seekers allowance.

In the years since I got here, I've seen more and more people appear on the pavements. They sit beside ATM's, or in the stairwells of tube stations, they huddle in doorways and train stations. They wait for the shops to close and hang around the dustbins. If they can't get anything from the shop bins - most of them now lock up their rubbish so people cannot access it - they'll hunt through the bins and bags left for collection on garbage day. Most of them are on intimate terms with the rat.

The shops - all of the supermarkets - throw away thousands of tons of food a year. Instead of using the centres set up to redistribute it, it gets tossed in the trash.

Every now and then, one of the people desperate enough to dig through that skip full of trash behind the shop gets arrested. They get charged with handling stolen goods, or vagrancy. This is not shop-lifting. This is food that was thrown out. In the case of the "stolen goods" conviction, the woman concerned was given the package of food by a friend. Somebody needs to explain to me how it is in my interests - or any of the publics interest - to charge people who are desperate for food with a crime? Tell me how grinding down someone already scrabbling to survive, already choking on the constant fear that comes with constant hunger, with that fucking rat scrambling and chewing at the base of your brain, makes this country better, safer and stronger?

Here's a thought. Pass a law that states that instead of filling the giant skip behind your store, you use the same people and time it takes to fill it and hand that food out to anyone who needs it. Set up a schedule in the front of the shop that people can see. The excuse that some of the food is dangerous doesn't wash: if it was good enough to be on your shelves at 9:55, it's good enough to hand out at 10:30 to the guy who hasn't eaten in three days. If you do have food on your shelves that is poisonous, you should get hit with jail-time and the mother of all fines. Anything that's left can get collected by the agencies you've carefully ignored. Anything that's left will result in a fine to the shop, and the records will be audited, along with spot inspections.

And here's another thought. If the people running the country do not do something to raise the folks currently struggling into a situation where they can improve their lives, instead of grinding them down harder and faster, the UK is going to turn into the same pressure-cooker that we're seeing in other parts of the world. We had a fun taste of it during the riots a couple of years ago. Personally, I don't want to see that happen again, and neither does anyone with an ounce of sense and sanity. But if you take everything from people, including hope and dignity, they have nothing left to lose, and that is incredibly dangerous. Using the results as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties will not address the underlying problem.

It isn't too late to turn it around. In another year, it may be. At the moment, the divide between the haves and have-nots is a yawning chasm. If someone doesn't built a bridge over it, we will end up with an overt class war; of the "eat the rich and bury the poor" kind.
Pressure-cookers and rats. It's a very bad combination.

Sunday 19 January 2014

A perspective on not quite dying : It's time to live a little

A quick warning to family and friends who may read this: this post may upset you, because I'm going to be brutally honest about how I felt and what happened. It's pointless writing about it otherwise, but please don't read unless you're up for it. Also, there will be Strong Language involved, because *shrug* this is me, after all. It's also a long post. For the TLDR crowd; not dead yet. ;)

I'm back in London, which is surprisingly warm for this time of the year. The wedding was gorgeous; the bride was a vision, and my brother is a very happy and lucky guy. And if you can get yourself to New Zealand, do so; that country had the best food I've ever come across, and the most stunning scenery.

They also have one hell of a health service. I got to have my third ever ambulance ride in kiwi-land *sigh* the morning after the wedding, and the paramedics and staff at Timaru hospital (Hi, Dr O and Bernard!) saved my life. Considering how close I came to not getting out of the ambulance, I'm pretty damn grateful. I'm not ready to give up on walking the skin of this world just yet, it appears. Thinking how bleak the last year has been pain-wise, and how closely I resembled an ambulatory corpse when I got off the plane at the start of the holiday, this says a lot.

The wedding took place in the lovely little town of Geraldine. We stayed at the Geraldine Motel, which is great - self-contained little apartments and a very friendly owner, who ended up calling the ambulance and talking my folks through what was probably a horrifying experience for them. I started getting short of breath at the wedding which was really weird for me. I'm usually the first one up and the last one off the dance floor, but I just couldn't get my breath. I thought it was hay-fever; it's summer in that part of the world and large amount of the party was sneezing and coughing.

At around 5:30 the next morning I got up because Something Wasn't Right. At around 6:30 I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, and something poked a very cold finger into my spine and told me I was in a lot of trouble. My pupils were huge. I was pale, clammy and sweating. To be totally honest, I wasn't sure if I was having a heart attack or an asthma attack. My head hurt. I couldn't breathe.

I staggered into my parent's room.

"Mom. Mom. I need an ambulance. I can't breathe." And then I wheezed, standing upright, too afraid to sit down or lie down. I doubt I'd have gotten up again.

I don't know how long it took the ambulance to get there. I know they're staffed by volunteers, and were just down the road. It couldn't have been long, but when you can't breathe every second rattles through your body like eternity. Also, it hurt.

My mom rode in the front of the ambulance. I remember the paramedic in the back kept talking to me and asking questions, and I couldn't really answer her. The notes on my file say I could speak 3 words a minute.

A little way into the trip, I felt myself untether. I lifted the mask off my face and said to the paramedic: "I'm getting worse." A few minutes later everything narrowed down into a pinpoint of light. This time I looked at her and said: "I'm going." My pulse rate on the machine dropped, then flared, then dropped again. There was no panic involved; it felt utterly inevitable, and there's little point in panicking when you know it's going to happen.

The paramedic slapped another ventilator tab into the funky Darth Vader mask and dove into the front, and I floated above myself. (By the way, an OBE is NOT the best way to find out you missed a spot on your hair dye, and you look like you've sprouted a bald patch right at the top of your head. That was annoying and will be fixed ASAP.)

There was a lot of radio chatter from the front, which I ignored. I was looking at my mom, at the way her knuckles were white as she clutched her hand-bag on her lap. I was thinking that I've had a good life. I have a family I adore (and who hopefully feel the same way about me). I have some of the best friends anyone could want. I've written a few good stories. I've just watched my brother get married to one of the best people I know. Am I done? Am I ready to be done? Because there was this tugging. This moment of knowing I could let go, I could be done. No more pain. No more fear. No more stress over bills and rent and work and all the trivial bullshit. No more migraine. No more spending three to four days a week trying not to throw up, convulsing, and shaking from pain. No more wondering how the hell I'm going to get the money for the op that might fix it. No more meds. Just. No. More.

I'd be a damn liar if I said I wasn't tempted; I'd had a couple of migraine attacks since arriving in Melbourne just before Christmas, and although they passed in a matter of hours, they were bad. Not as bad as before the Botox, but bad.

The ambulance had stopped. I drifted further over to the windshield, to the front. I could see the curve of my mother's cheek, the soft skin that was pale with worry. I could see her trying not to cry. Her lower lip was trembling despite being clamped between her teeth. I wanted to kiss her cheek.


I thought about everything I haven't done yet. I thought about the books I haven't written, the stories still to be read. The friends still to meet and places to see. All the stuff I put off doing for whatever reason. I wasn't ready to go. I wasn't ready to die in the back of this ambulance with my mom sitting in front of me; that's not something I'm willing to do to somebody I love. Also, call me perverse, but I prefer to leave this planet on my damn terms, and those terms involve good whiskey and a few more decades, not slowly suffocating because of my own body throwing a strop.

I love you guys.

The back door of the ambulance opened and another woman scrambled in. She took a look at me, told the driver to "Step on it, but steady," and injected me with adrenaline.

Choose now.

Fuck it. I've never given up without a fight. I came back, about 5 seconds before they intubated me, which is something I'm quite happy to have missed, thank you very much. That hose looked nasty.

I'll skip the rest of the ride; I did the Darth Vader impression in the emergency room for a very long time. I had drips and drugs and enough blood taken to please the average vamp, and seven people working on me for the first hour or so in the actual hospital. Unfortunately I didn't get everyone's name, but thank you. (Also, not sure where they hire from, but everyone seemed drop-dead gorgeous. Like General Hospital casting pretty.)

The awesome Doctor O thought I'd be in for four days or so. I got released the next afternoon, and managed to see a great deal of New Zealand. A week later I was on a luge in Queenstown, thinking "I'm lucky. I'm forty years old and it's a beautiful day and I'm alive."

And here's the thing; this may have been the best thing to happen to me at this point in time. It made me realise how much I haven't been living, this past year or so. I've made a few attempts - gone out to friends, written a bit, worked a lot more - but it hasn't been living.  It's been existing on this frantic little treadmill of work-pain-meds-pain-work-pay bills, and I haven't enjoyed enough of it.

Time for a change. Time to live my life, however much time I have left. I have no idea how successful I'll be at it, but I'm cursed well going to try, as Amber would say. Because it shouldn't take almost dying in a foreign country to realise that you're in a rut, that you're marking time like a hamster on a wheel, and that life is still happening around you through the fog of pain-killers and grimness of I'm not enjoying this.  (Also, universe, you've had your annual shot at killing me. Can we give it a rest for a bit, now, ok?)

On my bucket list for this year - get my motorbike license (FINALLY!). Hopefully get around Europe a bit on a long weekend. Get my brain fixed.

My friend Anne-Mhairi Simpson read my blog last year on what happens when the Botox wears off, and started up a Go-fund me site here. A bunch of fellow authors have stepped up to offer give-aways. I read what Anne-Mhairi wrote and sat down and cried, but these were good tears. I have no idea what I did deserve friends like you, but I'm so very lucky and grateful. It gives me hope; they've already raised over £100. Considering the ultimate cost, every penny will help; it means I'm that much closer to getting my life back. I'd like to not do the funky chicken pain-dance again, ever. The last one was in the back of a taxi in Melbourne. But whatever happens, I promise you guys that I'm not going to give up. I promise to keep trying to live, and live well. How can I do anything else, with people like this in my corner?